Heribert Kläser has been fascinated by the Köln-Düsseldorf ships since his childhood. So much so that as a fourteen-year-old, he used to ride his bike from his home in Bergisch Gladbach to Cologne nearly every day in the school holidays to watch the vessels sail up and down the Rhine. "I loved watching the ships, especially those of the KD fleet. They were really impressive, and I was fascinated by them. I liked to just sit on the riverbank and dream about being on board", relates Kläser. While his friends headed to the swimming pool or football pitch, he was drawn towards the water.
"There was a lot of traffic on the Rhine even back then. There was so much to see and observe. I was never bored, quite the opposite in fact. There were magnificent KD ships back then too", remembers Heribert Kläser and starts waxing lyrical. "The hydrofoil ships, the 'Rheinpfeil' and 'Rhein-Jet', were really impressive. The paddle steamers and the 'Wappen von Mainz' and 'Wappen von Köln' too. The four-deck passenger ship the 'Rhein' could carry up to 3000 guests and she was the largest passenger vessel sailing the European inland waterways in 1967. My absolute favourite was the 'MS Stolzen fels', though." The ship spotter on the bank of the river had long since become a ship expert.
Sometimes, his pocket money was sufficient to treat himself to the occasional boat trip. Not taking into account the annual trip to Königswinter with the whole family. "We used to sail to the Drachenfels with my parents, siblings, grandparents, aunt and uncle. It was a tradition, just like the potato salad and sausages on board and climbing up the Drachenfels. On foot, natu rally. The rack railway was too expensive. And we didn't bother with the donkeys either."
In 1969, the ship spotter Heribert Kläser noticed something that would give his hobby new impetus. "I noticed that some of the passengers seemed to travel frequently and regularly. When I asked about this, I discovered that they had a KD annual ticket and as such could board the ships whenever they wanted. As often as they wanted." This was music to Kläser's ears. He immediately enquired about purchasing the ticket. Only to have the wind taken out of his sails. The coveted item cost 320 D-mark. Too much for the bank clerk, who'd just finished his apprenticeship and earned a monthly salary of 120 marks. But where there's a will, there's a way - he approached the head of KD. Then Chairman of the Board, Dr. Walter Hempel, was impressed with the young man's enthusiasm and agreed to let him pay by instalments. Thus the 19-year-old Heribert Kläser became the youngest owner of a KD annual ticket at the time. The postcard-sized ticket bore his address and photo and the serial number 7. It also granted him access to the group of regular travellers.
"Some marvellous acquaintances and even friendships have developed over the years. And not just among fellow passengers, but between ourselves and the KD crew too. We were something akin to a family." That's how the 69-yearold Cologne resident feels in his personal golden anniversary year too. When he boards ship together with his husband Michael D., the couple are given a warm and heartfelt welcome. Each Saturday, Kläser embarks on a solo tour. He takes the KD ship to Linz and back. The annual ticket in 2019 is now only the size of a credit card. His has borne the number 1 every year since 1974.
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